Don't Overcomplicate It

Twice this month, I had the opportunity to review and provide feedback on plans to optimize existing email programs. In both instances, I was taken aback by complex webs of information presented as the recommended paths to improving the program performance.

The recommendations in these plans were all familiar. From segmentation and personalization, to the use of rich media, to designing for mobile email, all the latest hot topics were supported with research and insights from reputable sources. So, while the plans focused on areas the industry has deemed important -- as measured by the number of words written on these topics recently -- the basics were overlooked. Worse yet, they may have been discounted because simple ideas don't impress.

With that in mind, I wanted to share the recommendations I made to both companies:

1)   Keep it simple. The more complicated the plan, the more likely you are to fail to implement it. Most complicated plans die because getting buy-in takes too much time and energy. Especially now, people simply don't have the patience; they want quick hits. However, simple does not need to mean simplistic. Create a plan that is brilliant in its ability to be easily communicated.

2)   Build on what works. Most people get this partly right by looking at past performance and analyzing trends. Looking back provides an idea of what may work in the future, but the best input is going to come from your subscribers.

Building on Success
When determining how to improve an existing program, I often recommend a simple two-step exercise. The first step involves a review of past performance and the registration page. The second step involves surveying subscribers.



In reviewing past emails, the goal is to determine what drives people to interact with the current program.  Are there clear trends in the types of links that get clicked?

The next step is to get user feedback through subscriber surveys. Start by creating a list of the different sections or types of content contained in your program. Make sure to look at your registration page as another source of input in developing this list. You want to gather subscriber feedback on what they are seeing and on the promises that got subscribers to register in the first place. Your list should contain all of the components regularly featured in your program AND the components your subscribers expect to see in your email based on their response to your initial value proposition -- probably from five to eight items. You also want enough granularity in these items to provide clear direction on where focus once the survey is complete.

Many organizations will ask a question like:

Which part of our emails do you find the most valuable?
  1) Articles
  2) Promotions
  3) Etc, etc

While answers collected through this approach can provide a start on where to focus, this approach is too simplistic. Consider if you asked the following for each program component:

How would you rate the (article/promotional/etc) content featured in our email newsletters?
  1) Very poor
  2) Needs improvement
  3) Satisfactory
  4) Good
  5) Outstanding

Looking at the scores, and the distribution of scores, provides you with more complete information. For example, you may find that the majority of people really like your promotional content, but they are less decided about the article content. Or you could find that the ratings for article content have a bimodal distribution,    indicating that people have drastically different opinions. They either love it or hate it.

Asking users for their input on the quality of the content you provide only tells part of the story. Next ask a question to help identify how important each type of content is in influencing users to interact with you in a profitable manner. For example, retailers would ask a question like:

How important is the (article/promotional/etc) content featured in our email newsletters in your decisions to purchase items from our company?
  1) Not important at all
  2) Somewhat unimportant
  3) Neither important nor unimportant
  4) Somewhat important
  5) Extremely important

By asking 1) how good is the content, and 2) how important is the content, you create a basis for comparison. You are likely including content that your subscribers think is good, but which has little influence on their decisions to engage with your company on a deeper level. It is also likely that there are items that encourage your subscribers to engage with your company more often, but the content provided in that area needs work. By looking at discrepancies in these answers, you can easily determine which areas need attention first. Still other sections will be rated high both for quality and importance: this is your anchor content. Take advantage of this insight when redesigning the program. You need a balance of quality and important content, and not all content can be both.

For example, in one case we found that recipe content was rated high in terms of quality, and the review of past performance showed a lot of people clicking on these links. However, subscribers did not feel the recipes made them more likely to transact with the company. We wanted to keep this content in the program, but the question was how to position it relative to areas that were rated high in both areas. In this instance, we decided to use the anchor content (high in both areas) at the bottom of the email.  We trained subscribers to scroll to the bottom, and thus got them to see the other sections in the newsletter. This strategy worked; all sections saw an increase in click activity.

Last, when conducting a survey about how to improve the program, I always encourage asking an open-ended question like, "What would you change to make this program more valuable?" Yes, it can be a chore to work through these responses, but the insights gained are worth the associated effort. Your subscribers have ideas, and my experience has been that themes emerge for actionable improvements that are never seriously considered during internal strategy discussions.

Optimizing an existing program is never a simple effort, but we need to look beyond industry trends for inspiration. The answer is closer than you think. The inspiration you are looking for likely lies in the minds of your subscribers, who have a vested interest in ongoing program improvements.

4 comments about "Don't Overcomplicate It".
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  1. Roxanne Cramer from Cramer Company International, April 1, 2009 at 1:01 p.m.

    If emails are the the new telephone - how do you get people to read your emails - most people just read the subject and scan - I agree with keep it simple....but it is a challenge to use it to create new business

  2. Kurt Johansen from Johansen International, April 1, 2009 at 7:02 p.m.

    Hi Morgan
    Wonderful article yet, there is a fundamental flaw in your survey questions. You have five questions with the middle answer having someone sitting on the fence.
    In surveys and questionnaires it is always best to to have an even number.
    So for a question say,
    "How relevant is our email marketing newsletter to you?"
    You could have:
    1. Exceptional - Hits the target every time;
    2. Mostly newsworthy - I read relevant parts;
    3. Not relevant to what I am looking for;
    4. Disappointing - I don't bother looking at it.

    With answers required like these you place a line. Have two answers fall above it and have two answers fall below. Then you will be able to have a true indication of how you are viewed by your customer.

    Cheers Kurt Johansen - Australia's Email Marketing Guru -

  3. Kurt Johansen from Johansen International, April 1, 2009 at 7:05 p.m.

    Hi Roxanne
    The first part an email marketer should do is make the email relevant to their list.
    Email marketing is about:
    1. The List;
    2. The Relationship You have with your list;
    3. The offer you are making them.

    I have written a 34 page book to help people and businesses to understand the psychology behind email marketing.

    It's called "7 Killer Tips To Get Your Emails Read". You can grab it for free at

    Cheers Kurt Johansen - Australia's Email Marketing Guru.

  4. Morgan Stewart from Trendline Interactive, April 2, 2009 at 10:46 a.m.


    Thanks for raising this topic! While I hear the point about a 4-point scale, I completely disagree that a 5-point scale is flawed. I believe it is superior. What you are recommending--forcing positive or negative rating decision by the survey respondent--can cause anxiety that may negatively impact the reliability of the data. The most convincing academic argument I have always heard is allow people to feel neutral. After all, they may feel that way.

    But we could argue all day about the "right" scales. Instead, I recommend looking at this summary of arguments for different scales here:

    The value is in getting direct feedback from subscribers using a scale so we can analyze the results by looking at averages, response patterns, etc.

    Good luck!

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